By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - The playoffs for a National Hockey League (NHL) season that nearly never was open on Tuesday with memories of a bitter labor dispute all but forgotten in favor of an intriguing race for the Stanley Cup.
A compacted 48-game schedule that began in January with NHL players and owners apologizing to disgruntled fans and promising a season packed with unpredictable results delivered in spades, setting the stage for an equally fascinating playoffs.
The top-ranked Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference and Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference begin as clear favorites to meet in a best-of-seven games Stanley Cup final that will be played in steamy late-June temperatures.
But if there are any lessons to be taken from past years, it is that anything can happen. The Los Angeles Kings proved this just last season by sneaking in as an eighth seed and upsetting the Western Conference's top three teams before defeating the New Jersey Devils to claim the franchise's first Stanley Cup.
The Kings are back in the postseason ready to open defense of their crown against the St. Louis Blues as part of a 16-team playoff for hockey's 'Holy Grail.'
To get their names engraved on Lord Stanley's famous mug, however, players must survive one of sports' ultimate tests of endurance and win four punishing best-of-seven series before finally hoisting the silver Cup.
No team knows more about the playoff grind than the Detroit Red Wings, who are in the postseason for a 22nd consecutive year while the Toronto Maple Leafs snapped what had been the longest active playoff drought by returning to the postseason for the first time since 2004.
The Red Wings, who needed a win in their final regular season game to extend their streak, open against the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday while the Maple Leafs face the Boston Bruins in an Original Six matchup starting on Wednesday.
For hockey purists, the playoffs will provide a blast of nostalgia with all six original NHL franchises (Boston, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers) competing for the first time since 1996.
The opening round will also feature the first playoff clash between clubs from Montreal and rival Ottawa since the Montreal Maroons and the original Senators franchise faced off in 1928.
Not since the Canadiens celebrated the last of their 24 Stanley Cups in 1993 has the treasured trophy been paraded through the streets of a Canadian city and the country is thirsting to see that drought end.
PLENTY OF FIREPOWER
Canadian attention will be focused on Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and the Vancouver Canucks, who will all carry the hopes of a hockey-mad nation into the playoffs and try to return the Cup to its spiritual home.
Pittsburgh and Chicago enter the playoffs as the betting favorites with good reason after record-smashing seasons.
The Blackhawks, who open against the Minnesota Wild, spent the entire campaign atop the West standings earning points in each of their first 24 games to shatter the longest previous season-opening streak of 16 games set by Anaheim.
With plenty of firepower, led by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the league's stingiest defense and spectacular play from journeyman netminder Ray Emery, Chicago lost just seven times in regulation to claim the franchise's second Presidents' Trophy, as the NHL team with the best regular season record.
In the East, the Penguins also took a run at the NHL record book reeling off 15 consecutive win in March to become the first team to post a perfect calendar month (minimum, 10 games).
Already with a star-studded lineup featuring league most valuable players Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins loaded up for a Stanley Cup run at the trade deadline by adding former scoring champion Jarome Iginla from Calgary, Dallas forward Brenden Morrow and San Jose defenseman Douglas Murray.
Crosby, who was putting together another MVP campaign, missed the last month of the schedule with a broken jaw but is expected to be on the ice when the Penguins open against the New York Islanders on Wednesday.
With Crosby fit and Washington Capitals forward Alexander Ovechkin back in top form fans are anticipating a potential showdown between the league's two marquee players.
Ovechkin opened the season in a funk but finished in a flurry by scoring 23 goals in his final 23 contests to capture the Rocket Richard trophy as the league's top goal scorer.
The Capitals and Rangers will meet in the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons with Ovechkin going up against Henrik Lundqvist, the NHL's reigning Vezina Trophy winner as top netminder.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)